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Death by overworking? How to disconnect from work and recover Tue, 13 Jan 2015 20:15:19 +0000 [...]]]> “I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday…and Sunday, too.” This infamous line from the movie “Office Space,” satirizing work life in white collar professions, may be reality for many employees in the United States (US). According to a study by the Center for American Progress, the US is the most overworked developed country. That means going to the office on the weekend or working remotely from home after hours is the norm. Approximately 83% of Americans report significant workplace stress associated with time pressures, excessive workloads, low compensation, and conflicts. While challenges at work can be stimulating and may energize a worker to become more successful, negative stress may occur when the worker does not have the capability to manage perceived demands.

It is well established that workplace stress is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, cancer, and emotional health problems. This in turn may lead to reduced productivity, more sick days, and lower morale. Eventually, this negative cycle may lead to burnout. In Japanese, there is a word called ‘karoshi’ which literally means “death by overwork.” Have we embodied that in the US?

Time will tell, but there may be a glimpse of hope on the horizon. According to Ron Friedman, PhD, author of “The best place to work,” some companies have finally realized that better defining work responsibilities leads to improved productivity and more profit for the company. For instance, Volkswagen reportedly turns off email servers on workday evenings and during weekends to force employees to rest and recover. A software company in Denver, Colorado actually pays employees $7500 to take a vacation, but there are stipulations: No working on vacation and you must disconnect.

I know – these sound like wonderful scenarios! But the truth is that most employees are so accustomed to checking email at all hours that disconnecting is actually very difficult. Just think about the last time you didn’t work over the weekend? Has that ever been the case?

Our brains function better and more creatively if we build-in times for rest and recovery. And unless you work for one of these innovative companies, you will have to be the one to initiate disconnecting.

If your employer is not cutting edge like the companies mentioned, and admittedly most are not, there are some ways you can reduce your work-induced stress:

Engage with nature. Researchers wanted to know if engaging nature during the work day influenced stress levels. The participants were staff members at a Southern university in the US. Interestingly, the participants who spent time outdoors and were around nature had better general health and lower stress levels. Even if someone has a heavy workload with long days, taking a walk during lunch may be a great way to distract from one’s work.

Stop thinking…momentarily. Our conscious mind is great at making simple decisions. However, researchers have found that people who reflect on an important decision and then use distraction before ultimately making a choice end up choosing more wisely than people who only rely on conscious thinking.

What are ways that you disconnect from work to promote rest and recovery?

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Strategies to Accomplish Weight Loss Goals Wed, 31 Dec 2014 19:21:47 +0000 [...]]]> As we know, the New Year is a popular time to reflect and set goals for health improvement—and weight loss is often the most common resolution. This makes sense for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we indulged our sweet tooth over the holidays (hmm….Christmas Cookies), took a break from exercise, and watched a ton of TV (Big Bang Theory re-runs, anyone?). Guilt may be a driving force in the decision to pump some iron, but is that right?

Taking a positive approach to change is a better approach than talking down to yourself. Thoughts like “I should have gone to my yoga class in December” or “I’m never going to get my pre-baby figure back” are very tempting, but avoid this line of thinking at all cost. If you really do want to lose weight and keep it off, then consider engaging in these specific strategies when designing an exercise program.

Set realistic goals.

Yes – this implies that there are goals in the first place! If you don’t have a purpose, then you won’t be able to fight through the struggle of changing your lifestyle. But often times, people will set overly ambitious goals that lead to a lot of pain or injury ending their exercise program.

Instead of saying “you want to lose weight,” be more specific. It is better to say you want to lose 10 pounds by March 1st and then you will be able to track your progress over time. Remember to designate when you will exercise and if this will take place at home or somewhere else.

An appropriate goal will depend on your level of fitness and health status. If you haven’t exercised all year (or longer), realize that you need to start slowly. Perhaps 5-10 minutes of exercise per day is adequate until you can build endurance and muscular strength.

Take anthropometric measurements to assess your progress (girth of thigh, waist, hips, chest)

Start with a baseline measurement before you begin your exercise program, and re-measure every month. A recent study indicated that participants who lost inches from their waist circumference were motivated to continue an exercise program. This is a positive way to celebrate milestones and to increase awareness about your progress.

Construct a pro/con table

Life is extremely busy, and most people juggle several responsibilities, such as kids, work, volunteering, etc. An exercise program may seem doable now, but barriers will pop up challenging your good intentions. By identifying challenges from the beginning, you can be proactive when designing your program. Perhaps exercise is perceived as boring. Then pick an activity that is intriguing to you. Walking and running are not the only options. Participants in a recent weight loss intervention reported high intrinsic motivation from Zumba –indicating that they enjoyed this activity (how about that!).

Engage others

Whether this means inviting friends or family to exercise with you or just talking with someone about your progress, this will build-in accountability. Exercise doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. Consider family exercise to set a good example for children, too.

Happy New Year and best wishes for a healthy 2015!

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Does Eating Fat Really Make Us Fat? Sun, 28 Dec 2014 01:43:21 +0000 [...]]]> At some point in life, most Americans hear this common phrase related to weight loss: “You are what you eat.” We are told to watch our fat intake and increase our whole grain consumption in order to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. If you visit the web sites of prominent non-profit health agencies, the overall message about diet is that fatty foods are too high in calories and lead to weight gain. We are encouraged to eat light foods with less fat. While this sounds very practical, low-fat processed foods are often loaded with extra sugar to improve the taste.

I have to admit – I followed this diet for many years. I was scared of fat and limited it greatly while focusing on eating too many grains, low-fat yogurt, and fruit juice. In doing so, I was consuming an incredible amount of sugar. At least I was in good company given that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is drafting new guidelines for daily sugar consumption, which amounts to less than 6 teaspoons for females and 9 teaspoons for males.  This equates to only 5% of caloric intake from added sugar. Will most Americans be able to manage this change?

Maybe not — while we understand that sugar is damaging to the body, we allow ourselves to indulge on a daily basis. Even without eating dessert, sugar is added to soups, sauces, some meats, and even salads. Recent research indicates that Americans who ate more than 25% of their calories from added sugar were almost 3 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD). High fructose levels combined with low levels of fatty acids in the diet are associated with decreased cognitive functioning and insulin resistance (Barnes & Joyner, 2012). Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) are another source of the problem.  Americans who had 1-2 servings of SSBs were 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.  Sugar consumption was linked as a key player in the development of pancreatic cancer.

Why are we so tolerant of sugar, but have labeled fat as the enemy? The history of low-fat diets began in 1957 when the American Heart Association proposed the idea of reducing fat intake to lower coronary heart disease among people with a family history.  With little scientific evidence, the US government published a report in 1977 asserting that all Americans should choose low-fat foods in order to promote health. The food industry saw the financial incentives and began producing low-fat products. Long-term evidence revealed that mortality from heart disease decreased due to improved surgical/medical intervention. However, disease rates remain unchanged.

The tide is now changing. Several scientific studies are focusing on the efficacy of high fat (aka- ketogenic) diets. Instead of relying on glucose, the body creates ketones and this has been very effective for weight loss. While trans fats are artery-clogging, other fats are necessary for optimal functioning and absorption of specific vitamins. Ketogenic diets (KDs) often reduce hunger leading to an increased satiety where fewer calories are consumed. Other benefits include better glycemic control, lower hemoglobin A1C, and possibly a reduction or elimination of insulin use. Researchers have noted that KDs reduce the size and volume of LDL particles (the bad cholesterol) which lowers the risk for CVD.

Isn’t it time to carefully review empirical scientific data on weight loss in the US to better educate society and truly prevent CVD and cancer? Let’s ask Sweden – they became the first Western country to reject the ideology of low-fat dogma and proclaim the effectiveness of high-fat diets. This was a 2 year process where over 16,000 scientific studies were analyzed to assess the best dietary approach. Incidentally, 14% of Sweden is obese compared to 33% of the US. One scientist noted that “You don’t get fat from fatty foods, just as you don’t get atherosclerosis from calcium or turn green from green vegetables.” What if the US undertook a similar study? Would our dietary recommendations change for the better?

I am not afraid to eat fat anymore, and it turns out that I am not what I eat.